Programming Music History

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Alan Davis wrote a blog post back in 2008 about programming, and raised the question about the order of pieces in a mixed programme. His first instinct was to arrange the pieces, which ranged from the 17th to the 20th centuries, in chronological order, but he was also wondering if there were other ways to sequence them that would give a different perspective on them.

It's a more interesting question that it appears on first glance, and it has stayed with me for some time. My initial response was that chronological would raise no eyebrows – since everyone seems to use chronological order – but that it was commensurately the least interesting approach. But two rather more interesting thoughts lurked behind this knee-jerk response, and I’d like to tease them out.

First, I thought about other rationales for the order of pieces. Singers have texts to draw upon, and will often build a narrative from the sequence of poems. But of course this only works if the musical character of the different pieces supports the constructed story. In any one song, you’d rather hope that the music and text would work together, but the way that different composers at different points in history build emotional and narrative meaning into their music means you do have the potential for perceived clunks in the story.

That in turn made me wonder about building a programme just around musical elements – as a composer builds both variety and coherence into the ordering of different types of musical material within a piece, what if you built the trajectory just thinking about things like key, tempo texture and relative length. This is what instrumentalists always do of course, but it would be interesting to do it for vocal music, and then see what kind of textual narrative resulted.

Second, I wondered why the chronological approach is so ubiquitous. It’s there in the way graded music exam syllabuses are organised, and even where they have a much freer hand to choose and sequence repertoire, you’ll often hear it in postgraduate performance recitals too. I have three interrelated hypotheses about this:

  • The most obvious: self-fulfilling prophecy. Everyone sees it done that way and just keeps doing it that way because they can’t think of anything else. Well, maybe, but I think there are enough imaginative people working in music that the arbitrariness of habit is not enough to sustain the practice.
  • The way classical music culture embeds the idea of periods so deeply into its way of thinking about repertoire and style. We are brought up to see ourselves as heirs to a tradition that is formed by chunks of repertoire ordered in a historical sequence. Programming thus becomes a meta-version of the historical medley.
  • The way we divide up the historical past would tend to put music from the Romantic period at about the three-quarters point of the programme. If you were programming just by musical qualities, not by text, you’d want the biggest piece (where ‘big’ refers to length and/or emotional intensity) at that point, so that the first half of the programme built up to it as a focal point, and the final piece(s) helped bring the audience back to real life. Given the propensity of Romantic composers for expanding musical forms and intensifying the means for emotional expression, the chronological approach has a better than average chance of producing that kind of experiential shape anyway.

So I’m starting to think that chronological programming is not quite so arbitrary, but actually embeds long-range patterns of musical shape that we have been conditioned to respond to by well-established cultural habits. Of course, that does mean I’m all the more interested in discovering different patterns of coherence as a means to refresh our emotional palates, but that’s just the kind of person I am.

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